“I’ve tried to do all of those things and they don’t help.” This is a response I get when I discuss the steps I recommend to start improving panic. But there is something critical that is missing in most people’s understanding of how to deal with panic and it can explain why all your past efforts have failed. Let me clear this up.
How do you start to overcome panic? Go on the Paleo diet, put magnets all over your body, eat 3 dozen Acai berries every day – No. It’s much simpler. Just start doing the things you’ve been avoiding. (Well, it’s a little more complicated and I have some special suggestions in other upcoming posts on how to do that. If you want more insights on behavior change read Why Starting New Habits Is So Difficult).
When I first present this idea, most people tell me “I’m already confronting the situations that make me anxious and it hasn’t helped.” The lack of improvement creates a feeling that you’re helpless and this problem will stay forever. The reason you can’t get over panic despite confronting your fears is most likely due to something called safety behaviors.
Safety behaviors are strategies that are used to control anxiety and panic in situations we fear. The most common one that I have seen is rushing through a dreaded situation. If you worry about having panic attacks while you’re giving a speech, then you talk really fast or you cut it short. If you are afraid that you’ll have one while shopping, you go when few people are there so you can get in and out quickly (Read THIS POST to learn more about panic attacks and panic disorder.)
You shouldn’t feel bad, weak, or lazy for using safety behaviors. Everyone does them in some circumstances whether it’s to manage panic, shyness, phobias, depression, boredom, or other things that make us uncomfortable. It’s a natural human tendency to manage strong emotions. The more you can accept that this is just a part of coping, the more you’ll be able to let them go when the time comes.
Safety Behaviors Serve A Specific Purpose
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is a safety behavior and what is a personal preference – maybe you just hate shopping and get it over with quickly. You can identify a safety behavior because not doing it would cause you extreme anxiety. If you rush through the store all the time but you can stop this and your anxiety doesn’t increase, then it’s not a safety behavior.
A List Of Safety Behaviors For Panic
Look through this list and ask yourself which do you to manage your anxiety and panic:
Walk very slowly or limit physical activity.
- Rush through grocery stores or other uncomfortable situations.
- Take the shortest checkout line to get out of a store faster.
- Only going to certain stores because it feels safe or comfortable.
- Go out at times when there are likely to be fewer people out (early or late in the day).
- Carry items to help you feel safe, such as medicines, emergency bags, or other supplies.
- Only going out with a trusted person in case you were to have anxiety or panic.
- Distract yourself from certain feelings, e.g., playing loud music, watching movies, or anything that tries to take your mind off of yourself.
- Get intoxicated before you do something.
For those troubled by social anxiety and shyness, here are some common safety behaviors:
- Avoiding talking to strangers
- Limiting eye contact
- Talking a lot or asking a lot of questions
- Making a lot of jokes
- Going out when there are few people
- Making jokes when you talk others
- Asking the other person a lot of questions so you don’t have to speak or keeping the conversation on them
- Talking non-stop
- Not talking at all
- Rushing through a presentation
What Are Your Safety Behaviors?
Are there other safety behaviors you can think of? What are you doing to make it through certain situations? Is there something that you feel absolutely attached to? That’s a safety behavior.
How Safety Behaviors Limit Your Ability to Overcome Panic
Imagine that you are trying to overcome of a fear heights. I ask you, whether you can go up the stairwell to the top floor of the building you work in. You tell me “yes” and but then explain that you have to cling to the handrail with both hands, stay toward the wall so you don’t look down the stairwell, and walk as fast as you can manage.
If you had to do this, would climbing the stairs make you feel more confident? No, in fact, you might feel worse doing it because you’re afraid at each step you might pass out and you’re barely holding the sensation at bay. The safety behaviors feed (reinforces) your fear. It’s a way to appease your fear. Your fear says, if you walk up those steps, you’re going to pass out. In a way, the safety behavior strengthens the idea that the fear is real.
On top of this, how confident do you feel if you have to go to such extreme measures to walk a flight of steps? You probably feel little confidence because all the success of going up the stairs (in your mind) is due to the safety behaviors and not to you. The safety behaviors creates the illusion that you are vulnerable, incapable, and in danger. Although you deserve all the credit, you feel like you would have never made it without the safety behavior.
But if you are able to stop or limit your safety behaviors and confront your fears you will start to get better and feel more confident. In my next post (yet to be published), I’ll explain how you can do this in the easiest way possible. You shouldn’t just stop all them. You can try but in my experience it’s overwhelming. That’s why I have specific advice about what you can do to increase your chances for success. To get started improving your panic, learn about diaphragmatic breathing and get my free guide MP3’s.